An offhand comment by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar when she called on the Editorial Board this month provides a useful frame for examining the 2018 campaign’s closing arguments and Minnesota’s political psyche.

“We have this unique period of time when we should be governing from opportunity, not crisis,” Klobuchar said as she mentioned chronic concerns that the federal government has allowed to fester. “Instead, the [Trump] administration is making a lot of crises, and that’s where everyone’s attention goes. It’s keeping us from getting at some of the tougher things we need to do.”

Opportunity vs. crisis, the latter laden with fear. That’s one way to sum up the themes the nation’s politicians had on offer last week. And because state and local campaigns are increasingly (and overly) nationalized, Minnesota’s candidates followed their respective parties’ leads.

Democrats nationally and DFLers in Minnesota have been trying to make this election turn on their intention to use government to make health care more affordable. It’s the issue that Americans were telling pollsters only a few weeks ago was their top concern. It’s what a parade of candidates from both parties told the Editorial Board was uppermost on voters’ minds.

Most Democrats are proposing to expand access to a public health insurance option, be it Medicare, Medicaid, MinnesotaCare or some as-yet unnamed iteration. Polls including the Star Tribune/MPR sampling of Oct. 15-17 have found that a substantial majority of Minnesota voters like the idea, seeing it as an opportunity to pay less for a vital service they struggle to afford.

Republicans have countered that the Democrats’ “public option” means British-style “socialized medicine.” It doesn’t — not necessarily, anyway. But even if it did, consider this: A majority of Brits are satisfied with their National Health Service, which costs on average less than half as much per capita as Americans spend on health care and, by some metrics, produces better results.

But last week, a politically convenient development allowed Republicans to go on offense with a topic they prefer: immigration. By midweek, a caravan that originated in violence-torn Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador had swelled to 7,000 people and was headed for the U.S. border.

President Donald Trump responded as if the asylum-seekers were armed thugs, much to be feared. He threatened their countries of origin with loss of U.S. aid, suggested the caravan had been infiltrated by Middle Eastern terrorists (he later conceded that he had no proof, but thought it “very well could be” true), sent troops to the border — and blamed Democrats.

My guess is that it’s no coincidence that at the same time, Minnesotans heard a rising chorus from GOP candidates and their allies saying that DFL ideas about immigration put public safety at risk. Notably, several ads making that argument go after the only African-American or Muslim on either party’s statewide slate, DFL attorney general candidate Keith Ellison.

The Freedom Club’s commercials are a case in point. They link Ellison with DFL gubernatorial candidate Tim Walz and say that the duo will make Minnesota a “sanctuary state,” implying that they would allow foreign-born criminals to freely roam the state.

That implication is a stretch too far. Both Ellison and Walz told the Editorial Board they don’t want scarce local and state law enforcement resources expended in the enforcement of federal immigration laws. Both said they worry that communities will be less safe if people are afraid to approach their local police because of their immigration status. Both say that a related GOP charge — that Democrats favor open U.S. borders — is not true of them.

Do such factual niceties and nuances matter at this late stage of a furious campaign? Republican forces are spending millions of dollars throughout the country on what they must believe is a good bet that they won’t. Fear has been a favorite American political tool for decades. This year’s Trump tweets and rally performances contain echoes of Richard Nixon’s law-and-order theme in 1968 and George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ad in 1988.

Still, I’m sorry to see a state Republican Party whose logo proclaims devotion to “Growth and Opportunity” trafficking so heavily in fear. This isn’t 2002, when memories of terrorism on U.S. soil were fresh. It isn’t 2010, soon after many jobs and homes were lost to the Great Recession. This is when Minnesota is experiencing its lowest unemployment rate in 20 years — 2.8 percent — and median household incomes are finally climbing again. The state budget is firmly in the black and state government’s reserves are plump.

Problems persist, to be sure. But in Minnesota, they are the chronic problems that get short shrift when policymakers are in crisis mode. In fact, some problems persist precisely because state government fell into recurring fiscal crises between 2002 and 2013. State policymakers were too busy putting out housefires to deal with the leaky roofs and inefficient furnaces.

Now should be the time to get at some of those nagging concerns, and to do so with the creativity that can flow when there’s cash available to grease the way to reform. DFLers are right to make health care a priority. “The Healthy State” can do much better.

The opportunity list for state lawmakers also includes easing shortages of child care workers, teachers and caregivers for the disabled; finding new ways to provide and pay for infrastructure upgrades, higher education and affordable housing; becoming a clean-energy leader; and updating the tax code for a competitive global economy.

Minnesota would have been well served by a robust debate this fall over how best to seize this moment of opportunity. It’ll be a shame if instead, this election turns on fear.

 

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.